By D. Jose
KOCHI, India (Reuters) - Two Italian marines charged with killing two fishermen off the coast of India are likely to spend Christmas in Italy, after an Indian court on Thursday accepted a plea by the sailors to be allowed to join their families for the holiday season.
The two sailors, members of a military security team protecting the cargo ship Enrica Lexie from pirate attacks, shot the fishermen they say they mistook for pirates off the southern state of Kerala in February, sparking a diplomatic row between New Delhi and Rome.
The Kerala high court said its decision to allow the men back home for two weeks was contingent on the Indian government's approval.
Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone are out on bail in the Indian state but not allowed to leave the country. They will be required to hand over 60 million rupees ($1.1 million) as a bank guarantee to the court before leaving.
The sailors, awaiting trial in New Delhi's Supreme Court in connection with the shooting deaths, have to report back to India on January 10.
The Kerala state government opposed the sailors' request, suspecting Italy of trying to smuggle the men out of India and feared that the sailors may not return.
"We're very happy with the judgement. The Kerala government's apprehensions have been quashed," said Vijaya Bhanu, the counsel for the sailors.
Last week, Italian authorities summoned India's ambassador in Rome and expressed "strong disappointment" that the Supreme Court had delayed a decision on where the men would face trial.
Italy wants the Supreme Court to rule that the shooting took place in international waters, outside India's jurisdiction, allowing the marines to be tried in Rome.
Indian authorities accuse the sailors of killing unarmed fishermen in a "contiguous zone" where Indian law applies.
While visiting the marines in Kerala last week, Italy's Defense Minister, Giampaolo Di Paolo, pinned his hopes on India allowing the men home for Christmas, saying "nobody more than India knows the values of festivities".
(Reporting by D. Jose in KOCHI, writing by Annie Banerji, editing by Matthias Williams and Ron Popeski)